We hear it all the time from yoga teachers, doctor’s offices, pregnancy books and health magazines; yoga is supposed to be one of the only physical forms of exercise that is safe for everyone – and more literally, every body. So why are an increasing number of people finding themselves getting injured while doing yoga?
From hyper-extended joints to falling out of handstands, aggravated existing injuries to inexperienced teachers and dodgy adjustments, there are many ways yoga can leave you feeling less than great. A 2012 Herald on Sunday article found that ACC paid out more than $2 million in two years to treat yoga injuries. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and it shouldn’t be this way.
Our intentions have changed
Asana, or yoga postures, literally means ‘comfortable seat’ and is only one of eight aspects in traditional yoga philosophy that are all meant to be inextricably linked. The physical practice of yoga that we know in Western society today was actually developed thousands of years ago to prepare the body to sit comfortably for long periods of time in meditation.
Yoga was never meant to be a standalone physical practice for the intention of losing weight, burning calories or just getting as bendy as possible. We’ve turned it into a semi-competitive practice borderlining aerobics, contortionism or gymnastics! And while these can be fun activities, they are also the reason we are more likely to get injured in a yoga class if individual needs aren’t being taken into consideration.
Yoga’s audience has changed
Did you know that yoga was originally developed for Indian men? Now practiced by millions of people around the world – the large majority of them women – the traditional teaching cues for the postures often don’t take women’s physiology into consideration.
Additionally, people have typically been sitting down at desks or in cars all day at work, then enter their yoga classes and attempt to perform Instagram-worthy backbends and handstands when their body just isn’t ready for it. In Western society we tend to think of yoga postures as needing to look a certain way – a specific shaping of the body that must be achieved. Instead we should be listening to our own body first and foremost.
Why is safe yoga so important?
I’m currently doing my advanced yoga teacher’s training (having carefully selected the school Jayayoga who specialise in safe and sustainable yoga for life) after spending the last few years navigating a range of injuries along with a pregnancy. Not that long ago I was fit, healthy, more flexible than your average person, and rarely injured, but a lot can change in a few years and now safety in my yoga practice has never been so necessary.
We are generally less physical and flexible than we have ever been, yet we come into yoga classes after spending most of the week performing repetitive tasks and the majority of our time sitting down, then expect our bodies to open up easily and for the poses to look just like the person next to us or the teacher on the stage. Traditional yoga methodology teaches about the dangers of bringing the ‘ego’ into your yoga practice and this is what it’s talking about.
Every individual has a different body; this includes muscular flexibility, the type of work we perform mostly during the day, tension holding patterns, injuries, bone structure and cultural background. This means it is highly unlikely everyone in a yoga class will look the same when doing a pose together.
This is even important for people who are hypermobile; if you are extremely flexible, yoga may feel ‘easy’ for you, however, you want to ensure that poses aren’t dumping into your joints or you may end up with issues later on. There are many yoga fans who started practicing 20 years ago and are now needing hip and knee replacements thanks to all the past emphasis on deep stretching.
Performing Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) incorrectly during one practice might not injure us during one session, but repeated weekly for a year it might. Or perhaps one day we arrive to yoga class and do a posture we can usually do but that particular day you’re more tired or tense than usual and your muscles or joints just won’t do it. Giving yourself the permission to try an alternative option, ask the teacher for help, or just skip a pose completely may just save your body in the long term.
Why you shouldn’t dismiss yoga
If you’ve had a bad experience with yoga, don’t let it put you off forever. Although the origins of yoga all stem from the same place, there are different interpretations of it and each has its own spin on the postures. Fast-paced classes or practices performed in extreme heat may feel good at the time (and I love a good sweat brought on by an Ashtanga class so I’m not saying they’re ‘bad’!) but it may be better for you to try a slower form such as Iyengar which has more focus on alignment and uses props to support your postures.
Also, different types of yoga may be better suited to you at different times of your life. Consider trying different types and finding an experienced teacher who you trust and who really resonates with you. Preferably one who has excellent focus on safety and is clear with their instructions. If you leave a class feeling amazing, this is also a good sign the teacher and style are right for you.
If you are pregnant, consider finding an instructor who specialises in teaching pregnancy yoga classes (rather than just taking pregnancy options in a standard class). Listen for safety, alignment and breath cues, and always start with the easiest pose option given first if several are provided. When you feel you have mastered that, then progress to the next.
Yoga should be for everyone. It should be safe and it should be something we can do for our entire lives.
Image / NZ Real Health